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The Aftermath (Sermon for the Poway Chabad Synagogue)

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Parashat Acharei Mot 2019 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Aftermath 
Vayidom Aharon’ – ‘and Aaron was silent’.
Thus the Torah tells us, three parshiyot ago, before Parashat Tazria, Metzora and even our Parashah today, Acharei Mot. In Parashat Shemini, we read the chilling account of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. In a cryptic incident, they offer ‘aish zarah’, ‘alien fire’ upon the altar. Many commentators condemn them for defiling the newly-inaugurated Tabernacle through an unaccounted offering. Some commentators, like the Ohr haChaim, praise their initiative of religious enthusiasm and devotion. Be what may, God strikes the two young Priests down. Moses offers a strange response to the tragedy: “This is what the Eternal meant when God said, ‘through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people’.” (Lev. 10:3) Was Moses offering words of consolation or criticism? Was he channelings God’s condemnation or approval of the ‘aish zarah’, the strange fire? T…

Broken Tablets - The Torah of Trauma

Sermon Ki Tissa 2019 Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Torah of Trauma 
One of the most stunning lines from Psalms comes from Psalm 148: ‘HaRofeh lishvurey lev umechabesh le’atzvotam’ – ‘God is the Healer of the brokenness of heart and the binder of their wounds.’ 
Brokenness is a universal human experience: everyone has encountered brokenness in their lives, their world or in themselves. Of course, while brokenness is the great leveler, our experience of brokenness is not a level playing field. Some of us are subjected to greater trauma than others; some of us may have more access or resources to heal from or repair the brokenness we face. Nonetheless, I’d wager to say that as I give this sermon, there will a number of you who are encouraged to reflect on what is broken in your lives. It seems as inevitable as death. 
To the mystical Kabbalists of the late Medieval period, brokenness was not just as inevitable as death but also inevitable to life. According to these esoteric thinkers, including…

Seeking Out The Grays

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Parashat Mishpatim Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Seeking Out The Grays
One of the things that my husband and I love about America is passion and vision of the American people. As we like to joke among ourselves, Americans don’t do anything in half-measures. Coming from a culture of placid consensus-building for which we efven have an administrative term – ‘the polder model’ (named after Dutch reclaimed land, polders) – it is clear to us that Americans have fire in their bones and it makes this new country vibrant, innovative and inspiring.
As our current timeframe has become more polarized, American passions, for better or worse, have become more inflamed. We can notice this not only in the febrile news cycle but also in our daily interactions. Some of this is a blessing: people are more civically engaged, voter turnout is higher and it forces all of us to confront complex issues. At the same time, there’s no denying that these are draining and fraught times and Internet connectivity and online…